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Faculty Spotlight: Dance in the Engineering Classroom

By UMS Lobby

This post was written by Veronica Dittman Stanich. Veronica danced for a variety of choreographers in New York, then went on to earn a PhD in Dance Studies from The Ohio State University. Now she writes about arts-integration in the university for UMS, and researches it for the Alliance for the Arts in Research Universities (a2ru). She also teaches dance and writing.

The movement of fluids makes beautiful patterns. These have been captured in photographs, but Jesse Capecelatro, Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering, finds aesthetic potential in the movement itself. In fact, he used a UMS Course Development Grant to explore how some of the principles he teaches in Fluid Mechanics I (ME320) might be realized in dance.

Students typically get to know these principles through derivations using calculus and physics; Capecelatro explains, “Fluid mechanics is a unique class in the sense that it’s the first time students have to use calculus to solve problems.” However, he wanted to present the qualitative aspect of fluid mechanics to students as well, creating an additional entry point into the material: “It has visual meaning too. There are concepts that if you were to see them, what the flow is doing when you apply that mathematical operation, it could all of a sudden maybe make more sense to the student.” An accomplished practitioner of Argentine tango himself, Capecelatro posits, “If you just write down ‘This is how you define vorticity, mathematically,’ people could be turned off right away, but if the dancer is in front of you and spinning, that might stick in your brain a little while.”

Capecelatro’s Course Development Grant was one of the first that UMS has awarded for an interdisciplinary arts collaboration, for the creation of something new rather than the integration of an existing performance into a course. Together, Capecelatro, UMS Campus Engagement Specialist Shannon Fitzsimons Moen, and I conceived of a structured dance improvisation based on the concept of flow around a cylinder—at low speed, viscosity dominates and flow is smooth and orderly, but at higher speeds, we begin to see vorticity. Many elements of this concept are inherent in dance (speed, movement in some direction, spatial patterns, viscosity or quality, vorticity or spinning), allowing us to imagine what Capecelatro calls a “physics-constrained” improvisation for a large group of dancers.

The first iteration of the project took place in his classroom in March. With only three dancers—SMTD dance majors who volunteered to come to North Campus for the event—it was more modest than we had envisioned, but also more participatory. Students from his class not only joined the dance, they actively engaged in analyzing it. They thought strategically about how dance could most accurately demonstrate the principle of flow around a cylinder, contributing ideas on which way the dancers should spin, where the spins should take place, and where the audience should ideally be seated to maximize the effect of the demonstration.

Furthermore, the activity became an opportunity for dance to “talk back” to fluid mechanics rather than simply demonstrate its principles; the dancers performed a second version of the improvisation that included variations in timing and gesture that were purely choreographic, not related to the physics of flow around a cylinder. This version prompted conversation about the dance itself, and ultimately created an opportunity for Capecelatro to talk to his students about the continuum approximation—the idea that the properties of fluids are not uniform at the molecular level, that what appears to be continuous when seen from afar actually varies substantially when we zoom in to a very small volume of it.

Both UMS and Capecelatro look forward to developing this project, scaling it up to include more dancers and more conceptual nuance. Capecelatro would like to see it fully produced with costumes and lighting, allowing the concepts of fluid mechanics to be easily visible. He notes, “There’s something aesthetic about the way different fluids interact with obstacles, and being able to show that in dance, I think there’s a lot of cool possibilities.” He is also eager to work with dance faculty, establishing a collaboration that would tie into their curriculum as well as open up new possibilities for the dance itself: “I came into it thinking I have no idea how this is going to work. And I’m okay with that. Let’s try something totally different and see how it goes.”

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